The Rebel Artist: Inside Yoshitomo Nara’s World of Rock

The Rebel Artist: Inside Yoshitomo Nara’s World of Rock

Works from two pivotal periods of Yoshitomo Nara’s artistic journey unveil the influence of rock music on the artist.
Works from two pivotal periods of Yoshitomo Nara’s artistic journey unveil the influence of rock music on the artist.

F rom his earliest works influenced by German Neo- Expressionism, to the bold rebel girls of the early 1990s with their strong contour lines and sparse backgrounds, to the ethereal, sentimental gazes of his most recent series, we are now able to see the full arc of Yoshitomo Nara’s big-headed girls. These figures, variously shy, aggressive, pensive, fragile and strong, have become amongst the most beloved imagery of the last thirty years, displaying a range of emotions that defy their ostensible kawaii countenance.

Yoshitomo Nara. Image credit: Ryoichi Kawajiri

Emerging at the end of the 20th century, Nara transformed into a towering figure in the global art scene in less than 30 years. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong 2019 Autumn Auctions, Knife Behind Back (2000) fetched a sensational HK$195 million. Nara has since been heralded as “The Most Expensive Japanese Artist.” Surprisingly, amidst the artistic accolades, Nara rather prefers to be known as a “rock music aficionado”.

This spring, Sotheby’s presents two masterpieces by the Japanese superstar from two pivotal periods of his artistic journey. They are equally captivating yet entirely distinct. Both artworks encompass Nara’s classic childlikeness and signature guitar, and epitomise his masterful and nuanced painting style. Together, they formulate a profound exploration of Nara’s artistic spirit.

Indulging in the Unburdened Rock Youth Dream

Yoshitomo Nara, Untitled, 2008 | Estimate: 28,000,000 - 35,000,000 HKD
Yoshitomo Nara performing at Nagoya Central Park. Image credit: INSIGHT MEDIA

Yoshitomo Nara grew up in the countryside of Aomori, Japan. During his adolescence, he found solace in rock cafes, became a fervent rock music fan and even played in a band. Nara once said: “There was no museum where I grew up so my exposure to art came from album covers.” Rock and roll was Nara’s muse.

Nara’s love for rock music is palpable. Nara’s artworks unreservedly emanate his musical influence. Punk rock lyrics and the portrayal of a girl with a guitar became the quintessence of Nara’s oeuvre. Nara even funded radio programmes, sharing 1960s and 1970s rock music with listeners; and contributed columns to Japan’s renowned magazine Brutus, showcasing his rich wealth of music knowledge.

This year, Nara was the subject of a major solo exhibition at the Aomori Museum of Art. The exhibition was organised around five themes, one of which is “Rock Café ‘33 1/3’ and a small community.” The rock cafe Nara frequented during high school around 1977 was recreated, offering a reflection on the birth of Nara’s creative process. In 2020, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art dedicated an entire room at the artist’s retrospective to exhibit more than 350 vinyl album covers from the artist’s personal collection. All of these underscore the interconnectedness of rock music, and Nara’s life and art.

Yoshitomo Nara and friends at “33 ⅓”, a rock cafe. Image credit: The Beginning Place.

Music is an integral part of Nara’s creative practice and artistic spirit. The artist’s embodiment of the anti-establishment ethos of punk music in his works, as well as the conceptual extensions therein, are nothing short of mesmerising.

Yoshitomo Nara’s Untitled (2008) is whimsical, rebellious and defiantly naive. The artist’s quintessential large-headed protagonist grips a guitar, her strikingly cherubic face snarling as she plays. It is an instantly arresting example of Nara’s acclaimed series of billboard paintings. Its twin composition, 1,2,3,4! It’s Everything! (Aomori Version), belonging to the artist’s own collection, is entrusted to the Aomori Museum of Art. Offered in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction on 5 April, Untitled returns to auction for the first time in over a decade.

Untitled at Yoshitomo Nara Studio. Image credit: Yoko Hosokawa.

The little punk rocker wears a saccharinely sweet green dress. Her penetrating gaze charged with quiet rage speaks to our own discontents and aggression against an imperfect world. The innocent and docile performer is revealing the radical potential of subversive and anarchic youth. Through this painting, Nara successfully creates a dichotomy between visual expectation and reality, as the artist himself describes, "These works were born not from confronting the other, but from confronting [his] own self." (Yoshitomo Nara quoted in, Yoshitomo Nara, Los Angeles 2020 (online).

"These works were born not from confronting the other, but from confronting [his] own self."
Yoshitomo Nara

Cultural Reflection During Study in Germany

In the 1990s, Yoshitomo Nara studied in Germany. In this time, Nara further expanded his horizons. It became a crucial period of introspection before his rise to fame. In Germany, Nara was drenched in Western music culture, shaping his values and discovering his unique blend of Eastern and Western art.

It was in 1994 that Nara, with the help of gallerist Jörg Johnen, relocated to Cologne following his graduation from the esteemed Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. This move allowed the artist to begin working on large-scale canvases. Considered a highlight of the artist’s early career, it was living and working in the outskirts of Cologne that Nara’s highly solitary practice began to emerge. Stripping away superfluous detail from the background, Nara began to focus instead on the emotive potential of the lonely central figure.

Yoshitomo Nara, Guitar Girl on the Ice, 1994 | Estimate: 15,000,000 - 20,000,000 HKD

Guitar Girl on the Ice, created in 1994, emerged as a crescendo of Nara’s artistic exploration. A fragile figure stands atop a block of pristine blue ice in the middle of endless emptiness. The isolation and loneliness at the time reverberated. As one of Nara’s earliest depictions of “girl with guitar”, this piece also signifies a critical shift of Nara’s painting technique. Nara transitioned from the rough-hewn neo-expressionist style of his early works to the refined contours and delicate layering of pigment of later pieces. Guitar Girl on the Ice was previously held in the same family collection for more than 20 years. Offered in Contemporary Day Auction on 6 April, Sotheby’s is delighted to see this exceedingly rare artwork debut in the market.

Contemporary Art The Hong Kong Sales

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